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“Now Ve May Perhaps to Begin”: On Art, Theft, and Inspiration

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– by Laura Lippman, author of Dream Girl, coming Tuesday, June 22

My mother the (retired) librarian read my latest book while visiting me over Memorial Day weekend. We are WASP-y people—well, she’s 100 percent WASP, I’m 75 percent—so I did not expect effusive praise and I was not disappointed. She said that Dream Girl kept her attention and she would be curious to see what reviewers said. “It’s so different from your other books,” she added.

I will unpack a lot of this at my next therapy session. (For the record, the book has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal, the last of which called it a “masterpiece.’) But the comment that surprised me was my mother’s observation that Dream Girl was such a bookish book, with allusions to multiple novels and novelists.

“I didn’t realize how widely read you are,” she said.

HELLO, MOM, HAVE YOU MET ME? The 9-year-old who spent Christmas Day reading her latest Oz book cover-to-cover, the 10-year-old who roamed the Central Library while you studied for a degree in library science, the 12-year-old who hid Lolita under her bed, the woman who reads in the bathtub to this day?

Dream Girl, which centers on a writer isolated by an injury, is obviously inspired by Stephen King’s Misery. But Misery is only one of many influences on Dream Girl. Others include Margaret Mitchell Dukore’s A Novel Called Heritage, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

One of the biggest inspirations was Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound. The conventional wisdom, with which I do not disagree, is that the first Nathan Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer, is the most perfect of the Zuckerman novels. But Zuckerman Unbound remains my favorite, largely because of Alvin Pepler, Jewish Marine, former quiz show contestant and, yep, Nathan Zuckerman’s number 1 fan.

Pepler begins with the sweetest words a writer can hear. “Pardon me. I only want to say thank you.” For what, Zuckerman asks. “God! For everything. The humor. The compassion. The understanding of our deepest drives.”

Yet even in that first, benign conversation, Zuckerman quickly becomes paranoid. Pepler’s fandom is obsessive, conditional. He is a fabulist at best, a stalker at worst. He eventually reveals his true ambition—to write literary criticism. At a subsequent encounter, he backs Zuckerman against a mailbox and insists the novelist read his review of—Zuckerman!

Forget the writing for now,” Pepler told him. “This time just read it through for the thoughts.”

Zuckerman looked blindly at the page. Heard the lion saying to Hemingway, “Just read it through for the thoughts.”

Zuckerman tries to be polite, but ends up dismissing Pepler’s “thoughts” and writing as pedestrian. Things get heated. Pepler accuses Zuckerman of stealing his life in a profane and racist rant that ends with: “But what the hell would you know up on the hoity-toity East Side of Manhattan? You fuck up Newark and you steal my life –”

Zuckerman seeks sanctuary in a funeral parlor and we never see Pepler again.

You fuck up Newark and you steal my life. Do I wonder if someone will scream something similar in my ear? Only daily. Every creative person knows the edict that immature artists imitate and mature ones steal. Yet that seems to imply we steal from other artists. What if we’re ripping off civilians?

There can be no doubt that Roth was inspired by real-life people in his work. Even before his biography appeared this year, he had copped to some of his borrowings in the strangely inert The Facts, a memoir that struck me as a meta exercise designed to persuade readers that there is no value in knowing which parts of a novel are “real.” It felt like gossip and extremely banal gossip at that, with the exception of the stories about his first wife. When that chapter was excerpted in Vanity Fair in 1988, the writer Betty Fussell wrote a letter to the editor decrying “the power of Roth’s fictive eye to distort [his first wife’s] reality according to his needs.”

I just—literally, just—plucked my copy of The Facts from my living room bookshelf to check the book’s publication date and noticed a weird coincidence: the chapter about Roth’s first marriage is called, with obvious irony, Girl of My Dreams. Could this have been imbedded in my memory all these years, is that where my own title came from?

No. Gerry Andersen is not Philip Roth. The differences seem obvious to me, but I will enumerate a few: He is younger, WASPy and, while not admirable in his romantic affairs, more restrained than Roth.

I have claimed to be the writer who most closely resembles Gerry Andersen. Then again, I’m a novelist, forever playing my own version of two truths and a lie. Sure, Gerry Andersen, c’est moi, but I am not the kind of writer who thinks I should be on the short list for the Nobel. And I swear to you I’ve never had a threesome with a juror who helped bestow on me a cash-rich if obscure literary prize. For one thing, I have yet to win a cash-rich literary prize.

Joan Didion famously wrote: Writers are always selling someone out. I have come to the conclusion that, yes, I am always selling someone out, and it is myself. In my novels, I lay bare my obsessions and my pettiness. I plumb my characters—not just Gerry, in the case of Dream Girl, but his feckless ex, his stolid night nurse, his incurious assistant—trying to figure out who I am and what I want.

Almost a quarter century into my life as a novelist, I’m still asking those questions, possibly because the answers are moving targets. The person writing these words is not the woman who began Dream Girl in 2019, and the pandemic accounts for only part of that change.

If you feel I have plundered your life and/or fucked up Baltimore in the process, my apologies. But I still live here and I have stolen far more from my own life than I will ever take from yours.

(“Now we may perhaps to begin” is the last line of Portnoy’s Complaint.)



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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